Density Training for Explosive Athletes

Speed & Agility | Sports Performance


Stephane Rochet

// We build explosive athletes.

You’ll notice in our Explosive Athlete Program, we switch between two very effective methods of developing strength. One method is the Max Effort method, where we start light and build up in an exercise for a 1, 3 or 5 rep max for that day (with good form!) This technique is tried and true and has been used by top American and European strength athletes for decades. The powerlifters at Louis Simmons’ Westside Barbell in Columbus, Ohio use Max Effort days every week in training for bench press and squat to develop unbelievable strength levels. We want our athletes to be strong for their sport so we almost always incorporate some type of max effort lifting in off-season training cycles.

Unfortunately, there is a drawback to going heavy on the same exercise repeatedly: you eventually top out or plateau.

A crucial element to our workout programming approach to building explosive athletes is density training.

For a novice lifter, this may take weeks, even months.  But a more advanced lifter who has a year or more of good, solid training under their belt, see this plateau arrive relatively quickly, often within 3 weeks of pushing the limit on a single lift.  Basically, the lifter has taxed their nervous system for this movement pattern and they are unable to lift more weight than the previous week.  In fact, the athlete will often see a decrease in performance in the third or fourth week in a row of pushing their limit on a lift.  One way to avoid smashing the nervous system this way is to frequently change exercises.  For example, every two or three weeks, the lifters at Westside switch to board presses or floor presses instead of doing bench.  There are a ton of options an athlete can use to substitute for bench while still developing the upper body strength, size and power desired: Incline Bench, Close Grip Bench, Dumbbell Bench…The same goes for Squats.  An athlete can rotate between Front Squat, Back Squat, Box Squat, Single Leg work…This is an effective strategy we use with the Explosive Athlete Program.

However, we employ another very powerful technique in conjunction with Max Effort Days:  Density Training.  I learned this technique from Ethan Reeve, the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Wake Forest University and a true legend in the strength and conditioning field.  This system is simple, effective and yields tremendous results for athletes.

Here’s how it works.  With Density Training, we start by picking a certain percentage of an athlete’s 1 RM in a particular lift.  We want to be in the “strength zone”, so that percentage will be somewhere in the 70-95% range.  Generally, we’ll use density training with major barbell lifts like cleans, squats and bench or press (although Density Training is also a phenomenal way to increase max reps on bodyweight exercises-more on that in a later article).  Based on basic formulas, strength coaches have a decent idea of how many reps an athlete can get at a certain percentage of their 1 RM.  For example, at 85%, an athlete will get roughly 6 reps in the lift, give or take a couple of reps.  Next, and this is part of the art/science of this method, we take that number, 6 reps, and double it.  So 12 total reps is our goal. Now, we set up a set/rep scheme to get that total number of reps done.  If we are building strength and power, we’ll opt for low reps and high sets, say 6 sets of 2 reps (6×2) or even 12×1.  If we want a little more hypertrophy (muscle mass), then we might do 3 sets of 4 reps (3×4).  Here’s another important, detail: we do these sets on the minute.  So let’s say we go with 6×2 at 85% in the back squat and for our example, the athlete can squat 350 lbs.  85% of 350 gives us about 298 lbs.  So the athlete would warmup to 298 lbs on the bar (or 300 should be fine).  Then, he would do 6 sets of 2 at 300 lbs, each set starting on a new minute.  That is, the clock starts at 0:00 and boom, the athlete nails two solid reps at 300, sitting deep and driving up fast.  Then, he rests with whatever is left in that minute (45 seconds or so).  At 1:00 on the watch, the athlete smashes set 2.  This pattern continues until 5:00 on the watch, where he crushes his last set.  (It’s easy to keep track of what set you’re on with this method too- just add one to the minute on the watch, since we start at 0:00)

There are many benefits to training Density style.  First, we are using a heavy weight to build strength and power, just like in a regular set of 6 at 85%.  However, instead of grinding out one set of 6 reps, where the last 2 or 3 reps are slow and of questionable form, we actually get 12 reps done at that weight (because we doubled the volume knowing the brief rest would allow us to handle the extra work) and all the reps are done with good form.  This method gives us great strength work while not grinding on the nervous system as much.  You can also look at each set as a “play” that mimics what power athletes do: go hard for 10 seconds or so, rest a little (40-50 seconds), reset, get your mind right and hit it hard again.  So you are conditioning the proper energy system for your sport with these sets and developing the skill to BLAST it all out for a play, reset and do this again and again, play after play.  That is the type of athlete who dominates an opponent who isn’t ready, or conditioned, to match that effort every play.  So, it is critical to attack each set with your best effort and technique…ALL OUT.  Move the bar FAST!  You know you can get the reps, so use good technique and attack the weight.  Put speed on the bar.

You can see how Density Training complements our max effort days very well and allows for continued strength gains without hitting plateaus as soon.  Sure, we’ll grind out some higher reps sets too, but Density Training gives us another fantastic tool for training athletes for better performance on the field.  I saw the results Coach Reeve got with his athletes and our football, basketball, baseball and soccer athletes all reaped the same benefits from Density Training.  You’ll see Density Training programmed in all spectrums of our Explosive Athlete workouts whether that’s on the weights or the bodyweight stuff.  Now you know why (cutting edge training) and how to do it (all out, every play!).  Go get strong and game ready.

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